Closing the loop: How systems enable the circular economy

Engineering Director
Associate Design Director

About the salon

When considering the end-of-life stage for products and packaging, decisions often focus on choosing the right materials. That’s why consumers today see more and more recycling symbols indicating the material composition of the products and whether they can be composted. Still, not all plastics can be recycled, there’s no market for some post-recycled materials, and compostable packaging usually requires more than a backyard compost heap to break down. In addition, recycling infrastructure is locally based and varies by city and state. 

How can we, as designers, help companies and brand owners—including our clients at Smart Design, who are increasingly concerned about these issues—create environmentally responsible products within this context?



Sustainability in practice

Leveraging design and behavior to reduce the environmental impact of packaging


Sustainability in practice

Leveraging design and behavior to reduce the environmental impact of packaging

Our Panelists

Fiona Donaghey is a strategic materialist and co-cofounder of Hyloh, a global collective that approaches design, manufacturing and business from a materials perspective.  Hyloh’s final work product typically  includes materials and sustainability strategies, research and recommendations, and educational content.

Keefe Harrison is CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the planet by fixing recycling and activating a circular economy in the United States. Her organization is dedicated to engaging companies in making measurable, lasting change for the environment.

Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in the collection and repurposing of complex waste streams. TerraCycle operates in 20 countries, working with some of the world’s largest brands, retailers and manufacturers to create national platforms to recycle products and packaging that would otherwise go to landfills or incineration. 


Our lively conversation covered a broad range of topics essential to understanding recycling, including the business and economic rationale,  the designer’s role in creating circular systems, and how selecting the right materials influences the opportunities for recycling. The panelists celebrated the progress we’ve made so far, and offered realistic appraisals of the work yet to be done.

Here are the key takeaways from the evening’s conversation:

It starts with design

Keefe Harrison of The Recycling Partnership kicked off by noting that half of all Americans don’t have equitable access to recycling, which presents a significant challenge to all stakeholders involved with it.  “We know we’re on the cusp of making things more recyclable,” she acknowledged,  [but] “that won’t happen without knowing what the clear path is to get there.” One way is to design for a circular system—in which a product or package can be turned into something new—rather than a linear system, in which “you just make something and hope for the best,” usually ending up in a landfill. “So when you think about designing to prevent marine debris, your job should be to design the thing that prevents it from getting there in the first place.” Harrison said her goal is to soon reach a point “when all designers will know—even before they get to work—that if they put something into the marketplace it will be either linear or circular.”

Picking up on this idea, Fiona Donaghey of Hyloh added that “it’s not just about the materials, but the system.” She hears from more and more brands that want to use recycled content, but are having trouble finding the right suppliers, which presents an opportunity to get involved in the recycling system or to think about a second life for products as part of the design process or the design intent . When recycling is a design challenge, she continued, “you can design the product you need to put back into your cycle. And  that’s also a great way to control it.”

When designing circular systems, Tom Szaky of TerraCycle said it’s critical to know “whether it is profitable for a waste management company, who’s running the recycling ecosystem locally.” Although designers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers play a role in this process, “it’s the end-of-life, for-profit operator or composter who makes the final decision.” Bridging this economic gap is essential to a circular solution, Szaky contends, because once you’ve done that,  “just about everything can be technically recycled into something else.”

Think more holistically when selecting materials

Because there are many trade-offs to consider when exploring different materials—for example, using different types of plastic, aluminum  or glass, as well as safety issues and finding the lowest carbon footprint—Harrison recommended considering the “full life” of the materials to ensure plastic packages become part of the circular system. To facilitate this process, designers can use The Recycling Project’s free digital tool, Plastic IQ, which analyzes the possibilities for reuse, redesign, recycling and compostability, thereby helping companies improve their packaging strategies for reducing plastic in the environment.  Plastic IQ, Harrison explained, is a way to “democratize data” around the trade-offs of using one material or another.

Donaghey pointed to other factors that should come into play with materials, such as color: Fluorescent green, for instance, doesn’t have a lot of secondary uses, while clear or white plastics have higher value. Finishes that are less likely to have resale value on the secondary market should be avoided, and materials that make it more difficult for recyclers to sort should not be mixed together (one dreadful example she mentioned is plastic shrink wrap stretched over an aluminum can). “Keep materials as close as possible to their mono-materiality,” she advised.

Understand the business of recycling

When discussing materials, Szaky talked again about the for-profit  business model of recycling, and how that impacts other decisions. While looking for materials, for example, he recommended seeking out [what] “people are not demanding and start pulling demand there. He joked that if you could design something from dirty diapers, you would have an almost unlimited source of free material. To understand whether a package you’re designing would have economic value to recycle, he suggested calling up a local recycler and asking if they would buy, say, a truckload of them, Tom continued, “If they give you anything but a yes, it’s not going to be something they desire. Don’t just design blindly and then say, ‘why aren’t the garbage companies figuring it out?’”

Harrison also underscored the all-important profit motive that underpins recycling. “Recycling happens when a big-enough pile of stuff can turn into something new that an entrepreneur says, I can make money off that.” And Donaghey remarked that circularity is primarily a business decision for companies and brand owners, “just as it is when deciding to sell online versus bricks and mortar.”

Work together to make recycling easier—and brands more responsible

Harrison observed that we’re getting closer to a circular system, and to make that happen even faster “everyone has a role to play—no one can do it on their own.” That includes educating kids and consumers, encouraging designers to influence infrastructure, and getting more companies to adopt policies such as EPR (extended producer responsibility). That’s already happening, according to Harrison, as more than 100 companies and 50 organizations have signed on to EPR principles that say, effectively, “that if a company puts something into the marketplace, it is responsible for paying to get it back.”

Building on this point, Szaky laid out various methods for advancing circularity. First, choose higher quality materials that are typically synonymous with what recyclers want. Enact laws and stipulate policies that will help expand EPR as well as voluntary EPR—in which companies create their own mechanisms for recycling—as well as programs such as DRS (deposit return scheme) that use deposits. Szaky said that DRS, in particular, “always positively contributes to more collections because people are monetarily incentivized to bring the item back.” And finally, “Leverage the narrative of a particular supply chain to stir the heartbeat of the consumer,” he advised, citing ocean plastic as an example, “and this in turn will allow the company to justify the higher cost [of the product].”

Put your commitments into action—now

Assessing the current state of recycling, panelists applauded the great strides made by companies, consumers, and policymakers.  But they also warned that we still have a long way to go. One way to accelerate recycling is for “brand managers to give designers the freedom to do these things.” In the Recycling Partnership’s report “Paying it Forward: How Investment in Recycling Will Pay Dividends” Harrison has calculated that it would cost a total of $17 billion and take a decade to fix the U.S. system. Although her organization has made great progress over the past seven years putting a million new recycling carts on the ground, ensuring that every American has one would take 126 years at that rate. “Is that the timeline you want? That’s not fast enough for me,” she declared.

Donaghey also praised companies for being more proactive about recycling initiatives and taking action on their own. “They have gotten more definitive about what they’re actually doing and admitting where they could do better, and sharing information even with competitors,” she said. “It’s not really the case that they are evil companies that don’t want to do the best for the planet.” She concluded that  “things are changing. It’s heartening.”

Szaky took the argument further, introducing TerraCycle’s new zero-waste, reuse platform Loop Initiative, which replaces single-use disposable packaging with durable reusable packaging, thereby eliminating the need for recycling altogether. Szaky described this closed-loop system as “fundamentally cannibalistic” to TerraCycle, just as Netflix’s move to streaming content killed its DVD service. “I hope the same occurs [with TerraCycle] and I’m doing everything I can to achieve it,” he affirmed.


Recycling is moving forward, despite a confusing, hyper-local recycling system of more than 9,000 separate programs with different rules and regulations, and with only 4 percent of the population having access to composting infrastructure. Nevertheless, consumers, brand owners and designers are collaborating to create circular systems that reduce waste and increase demand for post-recycled materials. “The mentality is shifting,” Harrison asserted. And if we level up the systems and bring more companies and communities to the table, she believes, “we could get there in a decade.”

Smart starters

Define a clear path to a circular system
Be intentional about whether you’re designing a linear or (preferably) circular product and package. When thinking about a product’s end-of-life, ask how the product can go back into the system for a “second life” as something new.


Investigate the complexities of recycling
Be aware of the for-profit recycling business model and its impact on end-of-life demand. Circularity is a business decision like any other, so stay up to date on business and local policy regulations.


Explore best practices for circularity
Ensure that the materials’ colors and finishes won’t compromise recycling and reuse, because mixing materials could limit recyclability. To make more informed choices, consult tools such as the Association of Plastic Recyclers Design Guide and Plastic IQ.


Outline a clear path to sustainability
To help create a circular economy, communicate to brand owners how such systems benefit the company, consumers, and the planet. Make a commitment to taking action now—and how to reach goals—as there’s no time to lose. 


Linear economy
A linear economy is one in which materials are extracted from the earth, made into something, and at the end of their useful life end up as trash.

Circular economy
A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

EPR (extended producer responsibility)
A strategy to place shared responsibility for end-of-life management on producers 

PCR (post-consumer recycled)
Content made from everyday recycled materials

DRS (deposit return scheme)
Program that encourages recycling by making consumers pay a small fee when purchasing a product, that gets returned when they bring the item back for recycling.

A product composed of a single type of material, thereby making it easier to recycle.

Recycling by the numbers

50% of Americans have equitable access to recycling

4% of Americans are able to reach composting infrastructure

9,000 local recycling programs across the country

1 million recycling carts put on the ground in the past seven years by The Recycling Partnership

126 years needed for every American to have obtained a recycling cart

$17 billion estimated total cost to fix the U.S. recycling system

About Charlie Paradise

As the sustainability lead at Smart Design, Charlie works with clients to identify and develop new strategies that surpass both customer expectations and sustainability targets. Charlie’s technical and strategic background ensures that solutions always have a line of sight to production, and can be supported by viable business models.

About Peter Schwartz

Peter focuses on user-centered experience design, design strategy and design for sustainability. Peter holds a BFA in industrial design with a concentration in Nature, Culture and Sustainability Studies from the Rhode Island School of Design and was awarded RISD’s Rachel Carson award for sustainable design.

Let’s design a smarter world together